As John le Carre is to spy novels, P.D. James is to murder mysteries: Both have been credited with bringing a serious novelist’s talent and craft to bear on genre fiction. Though as clue-strewn as any Agatha Christie puzzle, and punctuated by a few overly baroque methods of homicide, James’ latest Adam Dalgliesh mystery, Original Sin (Knopf, $24), is also an elegantly written novel of manners, an Upstairs, Downstairs dissection of life in England’s oldest publishing company.
Founded in 1792, Peverell Press, which occupies Innocent House, a mock-Venetian palace on the Thames, is a business in crisis. When young Gerard Etienne — the aggressive new director — pushes forward his plan to sell the company, he is found dead, locked in a small room with no ventilation and a burning gas fire.
Comdr. Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, James’ popular poet-detective, is called in to investigate. Naturally, all of the company’s partners and most of the staff have compelling motives — but they have solid alibis, too. As in all ”classic-style” English mysteries, we gradually discover that everybody might’ve done it.
Throughout, James provides readers with the ample rewards of old-fashioned good writing, leisurely gliding her story between the professional and personal lives of the Scotland Yard team and the publishing-house personnel. Quarrels, jealousies, and festering grudges come slowly to light, then another garish (and improbably complicated) murder is committed at Innocent House. Then another.
Original Sin is high-caliber popular fiction with a literary veneer, but it’s also oddly juiceless. Still, this is an entertaining read for cold winter nights. It’s always a pleasure to see a couple of real pros at work-even if this time both James and Dalgliesh are not at the peak of their form. B-